Saratoga County

Saratoga Weekend: Fan Hub teaches handicapping

Sometimes the only thing stopping a winning bet at the Saratoga Race Course is the bettor. That’s ju

Sometimes the only thing stopping a winning bet at the Saratoga Race Course is the bettor.

That’s just one of the lessons being taught at the Racing 101 Fan Hub, which returns to the track this weekend to educate fans across all handicapping levels.

Debuting two weeks ago, the hub consists of a white tent located in the backyard picnic area near the festival tent, where hands-on tutorials are provided by professional handicappers. All day long, visitors to the tent receive one-on-one help, which can vary from reading the racing program to learning new ways to bet or just building up a bettor’s confidence about the gambling system at the track.

“We specialize in fan education,” said Joe Kristufek, one of the professional handicappers helping people during the day on Aug. 4 when the hub first opened. “We want to take the person that knows nothing and teach them something. Take the person that knows something to knowing a lot.”

Besides handicappers, the hub is also frequented by jockeys, trainers and other racing officials who stop by to meet fans and even engage in question-and-answer segments.

The idea is that by creating more educated fans the race course will create happier fans, who will want to return and might become more invested in the sport. In short, the hub is about making sure people have fun.

For some people, having fun starts with removing the intimidation that can arise at the betting windows or in trying to read a racing program. Those experiences, whether it’s standing in front of a line of anxious bettors behind you as post time closes in or trying to decipher a horse’s past performances in a program filled with industry jargon, are what Kristufek is hoping to defuse. “In other sports there is no intimidation factor. It’s all about making people more comfortable,” he said.

As a result, the Racing 101 Hub tailors its offerings to the needs of each patron. Some people want to know what safe bet they can cast without much effort and people on the other extreme want to strike it rich with an exotic bet. People who stop by the tent are asked about their level of racing knowledge, level of interest in the races and level of gambling. The professional handicappers offer help that matches those answers.

“The racing can be enjoyed at so many levels,” Kristufek said.

His key advice for anyone gambling is to know your goals. What you want to win and how much you’re willing to bet shapes the strategy the handicappers come up with.

For Eric DeWitt, 25, of Troy, the hub was a way for him to put to good use his years of horse racing knowledge. He has been coming to the track for about a dozen years and knows horses well, but admitted, “I didn’t know how to bet them.”

He was at the course on Aug. 4 and learned some new strategies from the handicappers, who essentially advised him to play safer bets and spread out his chances to hit long shots. To realize the latter, Dewiit was encouraged to bet a long shot across the board, which means to bet on it to finish first, second and third. This was in lieu of using a long shot for an exotic bet, like an exacta or trifecta, or just a big win bet, a first-place only finish.

“What he showed me is the perfect system,” DeWitt said.

As a result of the help, he won about $80 on a race where he gambled about $30. His margin would have been higher if he hadn’t also made some of his own “stupid” bets, which lost, he said.

The hubs were created this spring at Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness Stakes and will return a final time to Saratoga on Travers weekend, Aug. 25 and 26. It was developed by the Jockey Club to increase the sport’s accessibility. Jockey Club President and COO James Gagliano said that studies conducted in 2011 revealed the hubs would help attract fans.

In a news statement, he predicted that the three weekends that offered Racing 101 Fan Hub at Saratoga would reach a wide demographic.

NYRA President and COO Ellen McClain added in a news release that the hub also fulfills a request of NYRA’s state overseers, which is to attract a new generation of fans who so far haven’t connected with the sport.

“NYRA is focused on continuing to grow the next generation of horse racing fans. We recognize that thoroughbred racing is a complex sport and can be intimidating to the casual fan and first-time patron,” McClain said. “We are excited to offer this opportunity for fans to further their knowledge in an effort to enhance their overall experience at Saratoga Race Course.”

According to Kristufek, about 20 percent of the people who stop by the hub are interested in the most minute details of gambling. He said that people familiar with horses are the ones most guilty of betting against themselves by crafting very complicated bets that are the hardest to pull off. Handicappers at the hub try to get these informed gamblers to build exotic bets in a more conservative manner.

No matter who you are, though, he recommends getting the thick racing form and not the small one that resembles a pamphlet. “It is their guide for the day,” Kristufek said.

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